A New Commandment

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Watching for the Morning of April 17, 2016

Year C

The Fifth Sunday of Easter

Peter does what many regard as unthinkable when he chooses to baptize Cornelius and his family. Cornelius is a centurion in the Roman army, a commander of the occupying forces. Though he is a good man, he is outside the community of Israel. And so begins the conversation that decides whether Jesus is the Messiah of Israel or the Redeemer of all the earth.

Is Jesus the anointed one who frees Judah or the anointed one who beings the day when all heaven and earth are reconciled. Does Jesus make us better Jews or citizens of the age to come when death no longer holds dominion over God’s creation?

For Peter, he had no option. God had decided this question by giving these Gentiles the gift of God’s Spirit – the gift of the age to come. If they had the baptismal gift; Peter needed to finish the job with water. It was in keeping with the prophets and the words and deeds of Jesus. The grave was empty. The dawn of the world gathered to God was underway.

John of Patmos describes it for us as the heavenly Jerusalem descending to earth and all heaven and earth made new. The voice of the psalmist joins the refrain calling upon all creation to sing God’s praise. And at the center of our worship on Sunday will be the words of Jesus giving the new commandment – the commandment that characterizes the age to come – the commandment to love one another. Such love reveals that we are student/followers of Jesus. Such love bears witness to ultimate triumph of God’s love.

The Prayer for April 24, 2016

Gracious God,
whom all creation praises,
and whose will it is to gather all things into your wide embrace,
pour out upon us your Spirit of love,
that we may follow where you lead
and obey what you command;
through your son, Jesus Christ our Lord,
who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit,
one God, now and forever.

The Texts for April 24, 2016

First Reading: Acts 11:1-18
“If then God gave them the same gift that he gave us when we believed in the Lord Jesus Christ, who was I that I could hinder God?” – Peter faces criticism over his baptism of the Gentile, Cornelius, by recounting the sequence of events leading to his visit and God’s outpouring of the Spirit.

Psalmody: Psalm 148
“Praise the Lord! Praise the Lord from the heavens.” – The psalmist calls upon all creation to sing God’s praise.

Second Reading: Revelation 21:1-6
“Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth… And I saw the holy city, the new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband.”
– In this culminating vision of the Book of Revelation, the prophet sees the earth made new and the heavenly Jerusalem coming to dwell on earth.

Gospel: John 13:31-35
“By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.” – On the night of the last Supper, Jesus gives his disciples a new commandment: to love one another.

 

Image: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File%3AWashing_the_feets_(1420s%2C_Sergiev_Posad).jpg  By Workshop of Daniel Chorny and Andrey Rublev (http://www.icon-art.info/group.php?lng=&grp_id=9) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Radiant with Heaven’s glory

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Watching for the Morning of February 7, 2016

Year C

The Feast of the Transfiguration

As we stand at the threshold of Lent and its journey to Jerusalem and the cross and resurrection, this final Sunday after Epiphany takes us to the Mount of Transfiguration. There, the chosen one of God, anointed with the Spirit, and declared God’s “Son” at his baptism, is made radiant by the presence of God. It is a story sandwiched between two passion predictions. Jesus is pointing his followers to his destiny: he will suffer and die and on the third day be raised.

This teaching is beyond anyone’s comprehension. No one has imagined such a destiny for the Messiah. The disciples don’t understand. We don’t understand. God should fix things not suffer them, right wrongs not endure them. God should vanquish enemies, not be their victim.

This is why, if you read the extended version of the appointed text, you will hear Jesus say: “You faithless and perverse generation, how much longer must I be with you and bear with you?” (And if you are reading the extended version, you should go all the way through their incomprehension in verse 45.)

Jesus is the crowning revelation of God. Like Moses at Sinai and Elijah in the cleft of the rock, Jesus climbs up the mountain into the cloud of God’s presence. But Moses and Elijah appear not as Jesus’ equals, but to bear witness to him. They discuss his “departure”, his coming death and resurrection (literally his “exodus”), and in the end Jesus stands alone and the voice of God declares to the sleepy-but-startled-into-wakefulness, terrified-in-the-presence-of-God disciples: “This is my Son (a royal title), my Chosen; listen to him.”

Following Jesus is not for the faint of heart. And yet it is for the weary and heavy laden. It is demanding, yet full of grace. It promises life, but asks us to lay ours down. It forgives, but requires us to forgive. It loves, but requires us to love. It shows Jesus mighty against the demonic realm but helpless upon the cross. But even on the cross exercising kingly mercy.

It’s no wonder the disciples are confused. This is not the kind of Messiah for whom they have hoped. The Romans are forgiven not judged, enemies to be loved not conquered. Hundreds of years of foreign oppression goes unavenged, replaced by a mission to gather them all into the wide net of God’s mercy and grace. How can it be?

So here, in Sunday’s Gospel, we see Jesus bathed in the light of God’s presence. And here, with Peter, James and John on the mountain, God summons us to attend, to listen, to hear, to devour Jesus’ teaching and understand his deeds.

It is a vision meant to sustain us through Good Friday so that we are still in Jerusalem on Easter morn, ready to witness the eighth day, the day of new creation.

The Prayer for February 7, 2016

Holy and Gracious God,
wrapped in mystery, yet revealed in your Son Jesus.
Renew us by the radiant vision of your Son;
make us ever attentive to his voice and worthy of your service;
through Jesus Christ our Lord,
who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit,
one God, now and forever.

The Texts for February 7, 2016

First Reading: Exodus 34:29-35
“As he came down from the mountain with the two tablets of the covenant in his hand, Moses did not know that the skin of his face shone because he had been talking with God.” – Moses’ face shines from the radiance of God’s presence.

Psalmody: Psalm 99 (Psalm 2 is the appointed psalm; Psalm 99 the option)
“The Lord is king; let the peoples tremble!”
– The psalmist sings of God as ruler of all, and of Moses and Aaron with whom God spoke.

Second Reading: 2 Corinthians 3:12 – 4:2
“We act with great boldness, not like Moses, who put a veil over his face to keep the people of Israel from gazing at the end of the glory that was being set aside.” – Paul, writing to defend his ministry and to be reconciled with the Corinthian congregation, uses the image of Moses covering his shining face as a metaphor of the fading glory of the covenant at Sinai compared to the more glorious covenant in Christ.

Gospel: Luke 9:28-36 (Optional: Luke 9:28-43)
“Jesus took with him Peter and John and James, and went up on the mountain to pray. And while he was praying, the appearance of his face changed, and his clothes became dazzling white.”
– In a narrative rich with imagery from Moses on Mt. Sinai, three disciples see Jesus radiant with the Glory of God and consulting with Moses and Elijah. They hear God’s voice declare again that Jesus is “my Son”, bidding them to listen to him.

 

Image: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File%3AAlexandr_Ivanov_015_-_variation.jpg by Alexander Andreyevich Ivanov [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

 

Greeted with a kiss

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And she laid him in a manger

Wednesday

Luke 2:1-20

20The shepherds returned, glorifying and praising God for all they had heard and seen, as it had been told them.

I don’t know what people say as they leave worship on Christmas Eve. Probably, hopefully, that it was a nice service. Probably, hopefully, that they liked the music. Who doesn’t enjoy the change to sing Silent Night by candlelight? Maybe there is a sense of community, or perhaps nostalgia – or, possibly, just eagerness to get home to dinner or to presents.

I wish they went home “glorifying and praising God for all they had heard and seen,” – meaning not the worship service, but the news that “to you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is the Messiah, the Lord.”

That’s the stunning news. God’s anointed has come. The one who will deliver us and reign in righteousness is born. And not just born into the world but he lies in a manger! And the news is given to us, mere shepherds!

We should disabuse ourselves of any romantic notion of the shepherds. And maybe we can oversell how low on the social totem pole they stood – but they were clearly nowhere near the top. The Christ is born among the many, not the few. And he is proclaimed to the many, not the few. He is born among and proclaimed to those who lack status in the eyes of the world. Their twitter feed is followed by 6 not 6 million.

The Messiah is announced to those who tend the gardens and clean the homes and care for the sick. The Messiah is born among Uber drivers trying to make ends meet, and greeters at Walmart hoping to stretch their limited retirement income. The Messiah is born among those working the night shift pretty much anywhere. The Christ is born among the truckers on the road, away from family. Perhaps that’s the image we should ponder: Christ born at a truck stop and laid in a packing crate.

But we cannot work this image too strongly. We want to be sure that we don’t put the baby Jesus out there among “them”; he is born among us. In our homes with their secret sorrows and joys. In our homes with their struggles and successes. In our homes with our stresses and fears. In our homes with our sins and mercies.

Christ is born here, with us, where he is unexpected. To us the angels’ sing. We are the ones invited to see. We are the ones who should go home rejoicing. For this night the world is changed. Heaven has bent to earth and greeted it with a kiss.  Heaven has bent to us and greeted us with a kiss.

 

Image: By DFID – UK Department for International Development [CC BY 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

At the high table

For Wednesday

Mark 9:30-37

File:Carl Bloch - Christ and Child.jpg37“Whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes not me but the one who sent me.”

It’s hard to convey the magnitude of this action of Jesus. Maybe it would have some of the correct emotional power if we saw Jesus take a homeless drunk in his arms, look his followers in the eye, and say, “Whoever welcomes him welcomes me.” Or perhaps if Jesus had taken that large, swaggering and apparently thieving young black man from Ferguson into his arms. Or the drowned child lying in the surf in Turkey with the red shirt and blue pants.

When we think of this child in Jesus’ arms, he or she is inevitably sweet and innocent. But that is not the point Jesus is making. In the realm of God, greatness is in showing regard for the least.  It’s not that children aren’t loved in the ancient world; it’s that they have no status.

Jesus is trying to talk clearly and plainly to his followers about what awaits him in Jerusalem. Jesus is not talking in parables here. There is no hidden meaning. He will be rejected and crucified. And on the third day be raised. But this has no meaning to his hearers. They know no narrative of a messiah who dies. Messiahs reign. Messiahs reestablish the Davidic monarchy and deliver the nation from all its enemies. Messiahs purify the temple. Messiahs bring justice and righteousness. Messiahs lead heavenly armies and even cosmic battles against evil. But they do not die. There is nothing in their previous experience to comprehend Jesus dying.

And resurrection – this is something that happens at the climax of human history not in the middle. It happens to all, not to one. The dead are raised. The books are opened. The wicked are judged. The oppressed are vindicated. All things are set right. No, this word of Jesus doesn’t make any sense to his followers. So they go back to what they know. We are headed to Jerusalem. Jesus will deliver us from Rome. We will sit at his right and left hand. Who is the top dog? How does the pecking order go? Someone gets to sit at the high table, who will it be?

And then there is Jesus with this darn child as if the child gets to sit at the high table.

Exactly.

 

Image: Carl Heinrich Bloch, Christ and Child,  [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons.
https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Carl_Bloch_-_Christ_and_Child.jpg

A more profound revolution

Watching for the Morning of September 13, 2015

Year B

The Sixteenth Sunday after Pentecost:
Proper 19 / Lectionary 24

File:Christ Sculpture, Cambridge (7063878723).jpgWe have reached the turning point in Mark’s Gospel. Now Jesus begins to talk about his destiny in Jerusalem – to be crucified and raised.

It’s not hard to foresee that he will be crucified. He is challenging Rome’s claim to dominion over human life. He is denying that Caesar is the savior of humankind. He is announcing the dawning reign of God – and even his followers think of the kingdom of God in terms of the restoration of the Davidic monarchy and the nation’s deliverance from all foreign oppression. Rome meets all such claimants with the torture and shame of the cross.

But Jesus has a much more profound revolution in mind.

The prophet, in the reading from Isaiah on Sunday, is rejected by his community – but the LORD is the one who has given him the message to speak and will be his vindication. It is an appropriate choice for Jesus who will also be rejected by the leadership of the nation but vindicated by God.

The psalmist sings of God’s deliverance and uses words in which the Christian community finds hints of resurrection: “you have delivered my soul from death…I walk before the Lord in the land of the living.” Though the disciples do not yet grasp what Jesus is talking about – though they do not yet see fully – the hints of God’s remarkable work are sprinkled like Easter eggs through the Old Testament for those with eyes to see.

So we begin our Gospel reading on Sunday with the story of the blind man. Jesus heals his eyes but, when asked, he says “I can see people, but they look like trees, walking.” It takes a second act of healing to help him see clearly. So it is when Jesus speaks with his disciples – they can see that he is the anointed, the Christ/Messiah, but they do not yet see clearly. They do not understand the cross and resurrection.

The prophets like Elijah or John boldly challenged the evil they saw in their society, but Jesus is more than a prophet. Jesus is on a mission not to combat evil but defeat it forever.

The Prayer for September 13, 2015

Like Peter, O God,
we recognize Jesus as your anointed
but stumble over the mystery of the cross.
Grant us your Holy Spirit
that we might not seek to gain the world,
but to be found in your son, Jesus Christ our Lord.

The Texts for September 13, 2015

First Reading: Isaiah 50:4-9a
“I gave my back to those who struck me, and my cheeks to those who pulled out the beard.” – The prophet is rejected by his community but it is God who has called him and will deliver him.

Psalmody: Psalm 116:1-9
“The snares of death encompassed me; the pangs of Sheol laid hold on me; I suffered distress and anguish. Then I called on the name of the Lord: ‘O Lord, I pray, save my life!’”
– The poet praises the LORD who delivered him from death.

Second Reading: James 3:1-12
“No one can tame the tongue–a restless evil, full of deadly poison. With it we bless the Lord and Father, and with it we curse those who are made in the likeness of God.”
– The author warns the community about the power of the tongue and reminds them that we cannot bless God and curse others.

Gospel: Mark 8:22-38 (appointed: 27-38)
“Then he began to teach them that the Son of Man must undergo great suffering, and be rejected by the elders, the chief priests, and the scribes, and be killed, and after three days rise again.” – Jesus begins to teach his followers about his destiny in Jerusalem and calls for them to “deny themselves and take up their cross and follow.”

 

Image: By Steve Evans from Citizen of the World (Christ Sculpture, Cambridge  Uploaded by russavia) [CC BY 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

A beacon in the dark

Sunday Evening

2 Corinthians 3

File:Peggys Cove Lighthouse (3).jpg17Now the Lord is the Spirit, and where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is freedom. 18And all of us, with unveiled faces, seeing the glory of the Lord as though reflected in a mirror, are being transformed into the same image from one degree of glory to another; for this comes from the Lord, the Spirit.

Jesus is fully human. This is a very bold declaration of the Christian tradition. What he is able to do he does by the power of God working through him – not by his own power. What he is able to see in the hearts of others he sees by the power of God working in him – not by his own power. What he is able to see in the future he sees by the power of God working in him – not by his own power. The sins he forgives, the bread he breaks, the water upon which he walks – it is all the power of God working in and through him. Jesus is not a fundamentally different creature than we are. He is just better at it. He is a better human being. He is a human being in whom the link between God and himself is never broken. His trust in God does not fail.

The Transfiguration of Jesus doesn’t belie what is to come; it sustains us through it. Jesus is not Superman, letting Peter, James and John peek behind his Clark Kent suit. He is not revealing himself as the Lord of Glory as though the suffering that is to come were but a minor detour. We look at Jesus through the lens of the centuries and the doctrine of the Trinity and we tend to think that Jesus was God in a way that denies his full humanity.

But Jesus is not a divine being hiding in human form. He is not omniscient and omnipotent pretending to be limited by time and space. He is fully human. And the works that we see in him are done by faith, by his perfect trust in God. Jesus mediates the blessing and wonders of God. Technically, Jesus is not healing the sick and casting our demons, he is bringing into these places the healing power of God. He is God’s anointed, God’s Christ, God’s agent to dispense the gifts of God, to bring God’s reign of grace and life.

What happens on the mountain is not a sign of Jesus’ divinity, but a witness to Jesus’ authority – that Jesus is, in fact, God’s beloved son.

Peter, James and John need to hear God make this declaration because Jesus is on his way to Jerusalem. And ignoble end is coming. A rejection. A suffering. An accursedness. The apparent failure of the promise. The apparent triumph of Rome.

The customary response to the crucifixion of a hoped for Messiah (assuming any followers survive the purge) is to go home disillusioned. We were wrong. We hoped, but we must have been mistaken. This is what the disciples on the road to Emmaus say: “We thought he was the one.” … Apparently not.

In the face of those moments in life that seem to belie the grace and power and love of God, we need to remember that God spoke with Jesus face to face. We need to remember that God has designated Jesus as the beloved son. We need to remember that Moses and Elijah came and bore witness that in Jesus the reign of God is dawning. Even when we lose sight of it.

The Transfiguration stands as a beacon in a dark world. It is one in a chain of lighthouses that mark the coastline and sustain us in the storms: the voice from heaven and the descent of the Spirit at Jesus’ baptism; the voice from heaven and the heavenly visitors at the Transfiguration; the angelic witness at the empty tomb. Again and again God bears witness that Jesus is the one in whom earth and heaven are reconciled, in whom the new world is born, in whom we are born of God.

For a long time I didn’t understand or appreciate the importance of this story. I kept thinking it was Jesus who shines when, in fact, it is God who shines upon Jesus. Jesus is radiant because he is the perfect mirror of God.

Would that there were more in the world who glowed with the radiance that comes from true faithfulness to God and one another. Would that there were more in the world who were clothed in Christ as a daily garment.

 

By Dennis Jarvis from Halifax, Canada [CC BY-SA 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

A strange and different messiah

Wednesday

Matthew 21

2011 Palm Sunday Procession 29The crowds that went ahead of him and that followed were shouting, “Hosanna to the Son of David! Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord! Hosanna in the highest heaven!”

We are not very good at enacting the excitement of that first Palm Sunday. What is supposed to be a raucous crowd of pilgrims shouting acclamations full of messianic hopes as they throng the road to Jerusalem on the occasion of their great national celebration of deliverance becomes a relatively polite and orderly reading of assigned lines by people trying to walk and read their bulletins at the same time, while looking to get their usual pew.

It’s different for us, of course. We don’t come to this day with the same fervent hope for revolution. We do not have enemy soldiers watching the crowds. We do not have an enemy garrison at the corner of the church lot. We do not have a story of miraculous deliverance – we have a national story of brave men and clever citizen soldiers fighting from behind trees with truth and justice and providence on their side. Our Fourth of July is a time for beer and picnics and fireworks. It doesn’t have the expectancy of the big game. It isn’t fueled by present tyranny. We do not anticipate angelic armies with drawn swords to appear by our side.

Nor do we live in a time when this simple acclamation “Hosanna!” is provocation enough for the riot police to start smashing heads.

So I will forgive a little lack of enthusiasm in our Palm Sunday procession. What will happen next is not fueled by uncertainty and possibility. We know the story. The soldiers will crack heads. Or they would, if Jesus had not chosen to go quietly and give us time to flee. Jesus, however, will get cracked. Brutally. More brutally than we can imagine. Give humans a machete and a reason to hate and you will be horrified to discover the things of which we are capable.

The purpose of the Palm Sunday liturgy is not to get us geeked up as on that original day. It is to let us worship with our hands and feet and well as our heart and mind, to give us a chance to step outside the ordinary and to physically walk into this extraordinary story where messianic hope is radically rewritten. No longer is it about the power to crack heads (cracking the “bad guys’ heads”); suddenly it is about the refusal to crack heads, the refusal to answer violence with violence, the decision to love even those with batons and spears and a hammer and nails.

It is a strange and different messiah. A sacrificial lamb. A footwasher. A man of prayer. An embodiment of grace and truth. An innocent laying down his life that others may be freed from the self-righteousness and violence that lurks in the darkness of the human heart. An innocent through whom God will raise a new people, a new community, a new world to life.

Hosanna.  Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord.